Gun Review: Marlin 1894C .357 Magnum

RF and I had big plans: we were each going to get a Marlin .357 Magnum lever-action carbine and trick it out in dramatically different ways. He was going to build a 21st-Century Cowboy Assault Rifle: 10 quick and handy rounds of manually operated California-legal thunder, all wrapped in a weatherproof polymer stock and sporting the latest in tactical lights, lasers and red-dot optics. As I opined before, John Wayne might have carried RF’s project gun into movie stardom if “The Searchers” had been written by Tom Clancy and directed by Tony Scott . . .

My Marlin project would be an updated retro-classic: a saddle gun that an old cowpoke might have carried, with just a few understated modern conveniences that didn’t exist when lever-action rifles ruled the frontier. And no saddle ring, since I don’t have a horse.

The Reality:

The buttstock snapped off Farago’s rifle before he could even fire the damned thing.  Since the gun is unusable and Marlin’s gone radio silent on its return, his plan is languishing in Purgatory. Mine proceeded apace, aided considerably by the timely arrival of the Leupold VXII variable-power scout scope.

The Gun:

As we’ve both chronicled for TTAG, our starting platform was the Marlin 1894C with an 18 inch barrel, chambered in .357 Magnum.  It’s a blued-steel and walnut affair, 36 inches long and weighing a hair over 6 pounds.  Its tubular magazine feeds one round at a time through a loading gate on the right side of the forged steel receiver, and holds 9 rounds of .357 Magnum or 10 rounds of .38 Special.

Before firing the Marlin, I replaced the stock beaded front post and semi-buckhorn rear sights with ghost-ring sights from SX Sight Systems, and mounted their Lever Rail scope mount.  As I describe below, I also did a very light ‘fluff and buff’ on the bolt and lever.

I also had to apply a polyurethane finish to the checkered walnut fore-end myself, since Marlin forgot that step of the manufacturing process.

Wood Fit And Finish:

My first encounter with the Marlin 1894C was a disappointment.  The back half of the stock isn’t fit properly to the metal, and the front half was shaped and sanded but not finished.  As I noted in my unboxing video, the wood was still ‘in the rough’ and desperately thirsty for a protective clear-coat.  Luckily for those of us who didn’t score well in Wood Shop class, a can of “Gun Sav’r Hunter Satin” spray finish is only $14 from Brownell’s.  The final result looks fantastic (especially for my handiwork) but it doesn’t quite match the grain or smoothness of the buttstock.  I’ll live with it.

I’m not sure I can live with the gap between the buttstock and the receiver, because it can let in dirt, sand, water, or stray business cards.  Since the tang screw holes have already been drilled, this repair is well beyond my modest woodworking abilities.

I’ll probably pay my own money to see if a gunsmith can carefully refit the stock.  Marlin can’t seem to get its act together fixing Farago’s broken-ass rifle, so I’m not sure I trust them to fix mine promptly.  Or properly.  Or ever.

For these mistakes, the 1984C earns a grade of C- in Wood Shop.

Metal Fit And Finish:

The basic standard of metalwork on this gun isn’t just decent: it’s really good.  Running your fingers along the detailed machining and fine bluing of the receiver gives you a respect for the level of skilled craftsmanship that goes into such a rifle.  It’s a feeling you just don’t get from an investment-cast slide or a polymer pistol frame.

But your bliss is soon disrupted by a few glaring deficiencies that make you wonder just how  ‘skilled’ some of Marlin’s new workforce really is.

An assembler at the factory had marred the barrel band screw with an improper screwdriver, and gouged the barrel band in the process.

They also mangled the magazine cap screw so badly that it’s nearly impossible to remove. Do I sense the same assembler’s ‘handiwork’ here? Marlin, please spend a few bucks and buy your Bubba gunsmith the right screwdriver.  “Grade F–Unintentional” engraving has no place on any new rifle.

In addition to the Bubba with the Leatherman screwdriver, Marlin seems to employ a few machinists asleep at their CNC mills.  The end of the lever itself (the hidden end that engages the bolt inside the receiver) showed some crude machining or forging marks, which I very delicately buffed up to smoothen the action a bit.

The Marlin’s square bolt is an extremely complex hunk of milled forged steel, and it slides into the receiver from the rear like a key into a lock.  My Marlin’s bolt fits perfectly into the receiver, but the upper surface of the bolt was so rough that it looked and felt like a metal rasp.  This is what it looks like now, after a buffing with 800-grit sandpaper:

It looked worse than this out of the box.  Much worse. 

The machining and finish would earn an A- in Metal Shop, but these little mistakes add up to a final grade of B. Back to school, Marlin.

Sights:

The Marlin’s handling is outstanding straight from the box, but the stock sights are mediocre at best. The hooded front post and semi-buckhorn rear leaf are historically correct (especially if you pull off the cheap-feeling detachable front hood) but they work just like the crappy iron sights on an AK: they waste most of the rifle’s available sighting radius and they block out the bottom half of whatever you’re aiming at. As Orwell would say, that’s double-plus ungood.

Luckily there’s a whole industry devoted to improving the sights on lever-action rifles. Marbles and Lyman have sold millions of their classic tang-mounted folding aperture sights, and Williams’ adjustable receiver sight is among the finest precision rear sights ever made. Cowboy action shooters can’t go wrong with any of these, but I wanted to upgrade to something more robust and more visible in poor light and I wanted to mount a long eye-relief scope on the gun.

There are many ghost-ring sight systems available from Wild West Guns, Grizzly Custom Guns, and XS Sight Systems. They’re all fast and rugged and highly visible, and I chose the XS ghost ring sights and rail because it also provides a long Picatinny rail section for mounting any kind of scope you want. As Orwell also put it, it’s double-plus good!

Functioning:

I was delighted to discover that the Marlin’s flaws were, for the most part, only skin-deep. Loading, feeding, firing and ejection are all extremely reliable with a wide range of ammunition.

I fed the Marlin a smorgasbord of nearly every type of cartridge and bullet shape that you can possibly feed through a .357 Magnum. Factory loads and handloads, light cowboy loads and heavy magnums, jacketed, plated and lead bullets with round, hollowpoint and semi-wadcutter shapes, both .38 Specials and .357 Magnums.

I basically begged it to jam, but the Marlin fed, fired and ejected every one of them without any malfunctions.  The only bullets I avoided were conical bullets (because they’re not safe to use in tubular magazines) and wadcutters (because I hate them.)

Loading blunt-nosed bullets into the tubular magazine isn’t quite as easy as it looks in the Westerns. The loading gate is stiffer than it needs to be, and it can be a bit of a finger-biter if you stick the end of your index finger in too far.

Even once you get the hang of it, round-nosed bullets are a tad easier to load than jacketed hollowpoints. 158-grain plated roundnose hollowpoints loaded and fed the smoothest of all, ‘Like Buttah’ as Mike Myers used to say. The trickiest to load: my cheapest plinking load, a mild 158 grain LSWC.  These square-shouldered slugs take some jiggling to load into the magazine, but they’re notoriously difficult to chamber in anything. They don’t even like revolvers (especially with speedloaders) and they give many lever-action rifles fits.

The Marlin handled them with only two hiccups: I don’t consider them ‘malfunctions,’ but two of these LSWCs (out of 100 fired) required a singly tiny jiggle of the lever before they chambered. I’m not grading the Marlin down for this, since I really had no business expecting them to feed at all. They weren’t the rifle’s most accurate load, but they fired just fine.

Ignition was 100% reliable, with all primers showing a solid and uniform impact.  Ejection was also 100%, whether I snapped the lever forward sharply or cycled it slowly. This rifle is a brass-scrounger’s delight: it drops all your empties in a tidy pile a few feet to your right.

The Marlin earns an A+ in reliability.

Handling:

I’ve never shot a rifle that handles as quickly and instinctively as this little Marlin.  It mounts like a fine upland side-by-side: light and balanced and lively, but with just enough weight at the muzzle to keep it from quivering like a buggy whip.

It fits me absolutely perfectly, and perhaps this is a lucky match of the gun’s dimensions and my own. Taller or smaller shooters might not get the warm fuzzies I get when it snaps to my shoulder, and unfortunately there won’t really be anything they can do about it.  An aftermarket recoil pad or cheek-piece might help a little, but nothing about the gun itself is adjustable in any way.

As I mentioned before, the lever and the bolt were a bit rough out of the box.  Even after my little fluff-and-buff (which no gun of this price should require) it’s not the smoothest lever I’ve ever worked: that honor falls to a magnificent Uberti reproduction of the Winchester 1866 Yellow Boy. After about 500 rounds fired, the Marlin’s lever retention button and spring are still a bit too stiff, and I’ve learned to give the lever a little snap of the wrist to open the action.

Stiff retention button or no, these are fast-handling guns. Muzzle blast is muted and recoil nonexistent unless you’re firing the hottest 125-grain loads. You won’t lose your cheek-weld or your sight picture during firing, so it’s like firing a loud .22 that shoots big-ass bullets. After a box or two of shells, you’ll be able to empty the rifle into a dancing tin can at 25 yards in less than ten seconds.

In Handling Class, the Marlin would get an A+, but there’s one serpent in this garden of ergonomic Eden: the trigger. I’ll be bringing the trigger back for detention after we talk about accuracy.

Accuracy:

To be honest, I had modest expectations for this gun’s accuracy.  It is, after all, a short-barreled carbine with a slow-twist barrel (1 turn in 16 inches) firing pistol rounds that sometimes mosey along at a pretty pedestrian pace.

I fired five-shot groups of a variety of handloaded and factory ammunition at 50 yards, with the Leupold scout scope dialed ‘all the way’ up to 4x.  The first group size listed is the average of all groups fired with that load.  The second size listed is those same group average, normalized by excluding one called flyer per group. If there’s more than one blown shot in any group, whether its called or not, I take responsibility for it myself.

I had a lot of called flyers, because the Marlin’s trigger is so heavy, creepy and gritty that I found myself blowing a lot of shots.  I knew I blew them even before I checked the target with the spotting scope. These ‘called flyers’ are not indicative of the inherent accuracy of the gun, but they do illustrate the effect that poor controls have on the gun’s practical accuracy.

Or maybe they just make the gun both look better, and give me a pass for sucking at the range yesterday.  I report; you decide.

50 Yards:

.38 Special 158-gr LRN:  2.26 inches.  Note: limited ammo supply, no called flyers.

.357 Magnum 158-gr LSWC: 3.29 inches. (2.56 inches excluding called flyers)

.357 Magnum 158-gr Sellier & Bellot JSP: 2.83 inches (1.70 inches)

.357 Magnum 158-gr Plated HP: 2.56 inches (2.26 inches)

.357 Magnum 125-gr Remington JHP: 2.36 inches (1.10 inches)

This Remington load was so remarkably accurate that I walked it over to the 100-yard range, where it averaged 2.80 inches, with a surprising 2.00 inch average after excluding the single called flyer.

Comparing the Marlin to other rifles of all types, I’d give it a solid B for accuracy within its practical range of no more than 125 yards.  With a better trigger (and fewer flyers) it might earn an A-.

The Trigger: Detention Time

The more I shoot it, the more I am forced to accept that this rifle has positively the worst trigger I’ve ever fired on any rifle, with the exception of a $95 Chinese SKS from the early 1990s.

It’s so heavy and gritty (at least ten pounds, maybe more) that it just kills the fun of trying to shoot this rifle with precision. It’s  hard to describe just how hard it is to pull this trigger. It’s heavy and sticky for a while, then it sort of clicks into a false break, and then it gets even harder and stickier until it finally, interminably, breaks and finally fires.  If you’re down in the scope and aiming at a distant target, there’s a 20% chance that you’re not on target anymore. It’s like a knife that’s so dull it actually makes you more likely to cut yourself. It really is that bad.

But not to worry: I’ll be replacing it with a (hopefully) drop-in replacement trigger from Wild West Guns. I give the stock trigger a D, but watch this space for updates.

Ammo: Find The Right Load…

If I hadn’t brought such a variety of ammunition to the range, I might have gone home convinced that this was a 5 MOA rifle, and I would have been a little disappointed with that. With the right load, however, this rifle is as accurate as most hunting semi-automatics and even some bolt-action deer rifles. With a scope inside of 125 yards, it will even work as a varmint rifle.  From a light, quick and insanely fun rifle like this, that’s pretty damned good.

And Stick With It

Most rifles, whatever caliber they are, will show some variation in POI (point of impact) when shooting different loads or bullet weights. At 100 yards my .270, for instance, will shoot an inch or two higher with 130-grain boattails than it will with 150s because of the 130′s higher velocity and flatter trajectory.Sometimes it will shoot an inch or two to the right or left also; I haven’t a clue why.

With pistol-caliber carbines, this effect is taken to an extreme. At a plinking distance of 15 yards, a .38+P load can impact three inches higher than a mild .38 Special cowboy load. At 50 yards, the hot-rod 125-gr Remington JHP hits the target a full eight inches higher than the slower-moving (but still full-powered) 158-grain JSP. If you accidentally switched ammo at 100 yards, your shot would either go over your target’s head or between his knees.

My advice is to find a load or two that shoot accurately and feed reliably in your Marlin or other pistol-caliber carbine, and forsake ye all others. Unless you really like missing.

SUMMARY

John Wayne, Chuck Connors, Lorne Greene and Gary Cooper were onto something: pistol-caliber lever-actions are reliable, accurate, and more fun than a greased pig at the county fair. Unfortunately Farago’s Marlin 1894c’s is an unusable lemon, and mine came from the factory mechanically sound but seriously blemished. No new rifle should be plagued by so many obvious defects–especially one that’s been in production for almost 120 years.

Until Marlin cleans up its shop, everything good about the Marlin 1894c can also be found in the Henry Big Boy. The price is higher, but the workmanship is by most accounts impeccable. Another competitor is the Rossi Puma, a Winchester-based Brazilian import at a lower price.

SPECIFICATIONS

Caliber: .357 Magnum, .38 Special
Barrel: 18 inches, 1 in 16 Ballard-cut rifling.
Overall Length: 36 inches
Weight: just over 6 pounds.
Action: Lever-action, external hammer w/crossbolt safety, tubular magazine.
Finish: Blued steel, satin or matte finish.
Capacity: 9+1 (.357), 10+1 (.38 Special)
Price: $550 and up, if you can find one at all.  They’ve been back-ordered for several months at press time.

RATINGS (out of five)

Accuracy:  * * * 1/2
Inherent accuracy (2 MOA) is impressive from a handy lever-action, but truly horrible trigger will prevent you from consistently realizing such accuracy.  Replace the trigger for four stars.

Ergonomics:  * * * * * (excluding trigger)
Except for the trigger, this is the best-handling rifle I’ve ever handled. Tubular magazine not the easiest to load.

Reliability: * * * * *
500 rounds fired with only two sticky feeds from SWC bullets that aren’t supposed to feed at all?  No problems here.

Customize This: * * *
Aftermarket sights and trigger are a must, rail and sling are optional.  If you’re lucky (cough cough) nothing else will need fixing.

Overall Rating: * *
Handy, handsome, accurate, hard-hitting and economical to shoot, this timeless design has many virtues but is sadly compromised by substandard workmanship and quality control.  My rifle is plagued by cosmetic defects, and Farago’s rifle died before it fired a shot.